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Neutral Milk Hotel
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea

Neutral Milk Hotel may make the world once again safe for altrock. In a subgenre that's glutted with formulaic grabs for the gold -- catchy guitar riffs, slack attitudes, irony-laced samples -- the Athens-based band is something of an anomaly. Rather than tap into the commercial-rock pipeline, Neutral Milk Hotel has created a world of its own, a sprawling and poetic soundscape that rewards intense listening.

In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is a retro-style march that's completely out of step with current trends. With guitars, bass, and drums augmented by a coterie of horns, singing saws, organs, and pipes, the band sounds something like the '80s hardcore band the Minutemen fronted by John Philip Sousa during the British Invasion. Like a song-suite, the album weaves together everything from catchy melody ("The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. One") to fey pop (the title cut) to brassy stomp ("The Fool") to gospel drone ("The King of Carrot Flowers Pts. Two and Three").

Jeff Mangum, the band's chief singer and songwriter, spins nonlinear tales that are both evocative and provocative. On the opening tune, "The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. One," he sings, "When you were young, you were the king of carrot flowers/... And your mom would stick a fork right into daddy's shoulder/And your dad would throw the garbage all across the floor/As we would lay and learn what each others bodies were for." From there Mangum's lyrics get stranger as straight narrative gives way to slippery, dreamlike imagery. By disc's end he's free-associating about tongues, teeth, tomatoes, and God on "Two-Headed Boy Pt. Two." It's alternately poetic, baffling, and moving.

Mangum has been compared to the likes of Captain Beefheart, Brian Wilson, and Roky Erickson for his almost embarrassing emotional outbursts. In his world, adult experiences mix with childhood wonder, rational thinking turns inside out, and time runs backward and forward. Despite its "experimental" conceits, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea manages to be thoughtful, tuneful, and ultimately timeless.

-- John Lewis

Grant Lee Buffalo
(Slash/Warner Bros.)

On its latest album, Grant Lee Buffalo seems intent on conjuring up a new musical hybrid. Call it glam-prairie. The artwork, costumes, and some of the instruments look like items from a turn-of-the-century state fair. At the same time, the four-piece band uses plenty of David Bowie-esque song structures and vocal stylings. Whatever way you look at it, the album fizzles.

A much more dense and driving effort than the group's three previous CDs, Jubilee is packed with powerful guitars and thick layers of instruments. A couple of melodic but generic modern-rock moments are overshadowed by more complex and surprising songs. On paper these elements should add up to something interesting. In practice, though, the effort comes off as heavy-handed. It's as if the group is deliberately courting the label "passionate."

The biggest problem is singer-guitarist Grant Lee Phillips' voice, which is strong and has great range, but Phillips overuses his falsetto, as if everything must scale the heights of drama. He emotes each song in an I'm-so-desperate fashion that, after a while, he makes you want to walk out of the room for relief.

Not everything is overbearing. The more muted songs, such as "Testimony" and "SuperSloMotion," are reminiscent of Robbie Robertson's solo work, haunted and atmospheric. The lonesome, meditative acoustic-based cuts "Come to Mama, She Say" and "Everybody Needs a Little Sanctuary" use Hammond organs and slide guitars to good effect. Robyn Hitchcock contributes a searing little harmonica to "My, My, My," and Michael Stipe tosses in a few background vocals, but all in all Jubilee feels too puffed up for its own good.

-- Theresa Everline

David Garza
This Euphoria
(Lava/Atlantic Records)

Maybe all that was missing from the '80s glam-rock scene was a real ladies' man. No, not David Lee Roth declaring his gigolohood or Jon Bon Jovi pondering the ramifications of teenage love, but a man proclaiming unabashed romantic intentions while maintaining his machismo. Luckily, one has surfaced -- granted, ten years after the fact -- in the form of David Garza. While This Euphoria marks his major-label debut, Garza has been putting out records on his own label, Wide Open Records, since his college days. (His Four-Track Manifesto was declared a "must have" by Billboard magazine.)

So the seeds of what grew into his major label "debut" were planted a decade ago in the height of the party-rock era. The Austin-based singer's version of guitar rock, however, features creative arrangements and thoughtful lyrics that make his songs worth picking apart chord by chord, word by word.

Garza sounds a bit like Jeff Buckley fronting Led Zeppelin. He coyly applies his voice to the sweetly melodic "Lost," only to switch to a throaty growl in "Glow in the Dark." "Kinder" brims with fuzzy power-chords, while the title track hovers between jazz and psychedelia. Somehow Garza keeps the saccharine ballad "Lost" in check -- even despite his breathy lines, "We walked down 34th/I remember your rope hair/My little aching star." On "Glow in the Dark," Garza shamelessly flaunts his Robert Plant influence.

The track "Discoball World" dominates this CD with its sheer force and inventiveness. The longing in his voice is palpable, and lines such as "I fell for your coffee eyes/Your half-and-half/White lies" are irresistible. A close second is the languid "Slave," which also appears on the Great Expectations soundtrack. Somehow Garza sounds romantic and keeps his self-respect while professing, "I have no more soul to save/So baby I will be your slave."

Throughout it all, Garza sounds charmingly honest. Earnestly professing, "I'd like to tell you what I think about you baby/But I can't say it/'Cause I'm a nice guy" (from "Kinder"), he just begs to be believed. And when he asks "Aren't you gonna break my fall?" (in "Core [In Time]"), it would be cruel not to answer.

Maybe Garza can't answer for the shortcomings of the '80s rock scene, but he can certainly add some depth to the '90s.

-- Liesa Goins